Property Battle Leaves LA Homeless Vets With Few Options
ARUN RATH, HOST:
From NPR West, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Arun Rath.
This year saw a major development in a story that NPR has been following since 2011. That's when a group of homeless disabled veterans filed a lawsuit seeking housing on a sprawling campus of the VA health care facility in West Los Angeles. The VA had taken no action on plans for housing homeless vets there. But NPR's Ina Jaffe found the department had made tens of millions of dollars renting out parts of the property to enterprises that had nothing to do with veterans. Hi, Ina.
INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Hi, Arun.
RATH: So I understand this year, there was a ruling in this lawsuit, and a federal judge declared those rental deals to be illegal.
JAFFE: You know, that's right. And maybe we should take a moment to first explain why so many businesses wanted to rent this property.
JAFFE: The VA Medical Center in West Los Angeles is on 400 acres of prime real estate. It's an affluent Brentwood. It's right next to a major freeway. And developers have been drooling over it for years. So to preserve this land for veterans, Congress told the VA they can't sell any of the property, and they aren't even allowed to lease it.
RATH: And so the VA just ignored that?
JAFFE: Well, not exactly. Technically, they weren't leasing the property. They were sharing it.
JAFFE: The VA used a law that allowed them to share health care resources, even though what they were doing was renting out property for a parking lot for school buses, a commercial laundry for hotels, a storage facility for sets for Fox Studios. You get the idea. So the government argued in court that this was OK because the money from these deals benefitted veterans. But the judge disagreed and said the deals were illegal because they had nothing to do with health care.
RATH: So how much money did the VA actually take in from this prime real estate?
JAFFE: Well, the documents I was able to get through the Freedom of Information Act had some gaps. But I calculated that over about a dozen years, they took in at least $28 million and maybe more than 40 million. And that's more than enough to renovate at least one of the buildings they designated for housing for homeless vets back in 2007, but that were just sitting there empty.
RATH: So what did they do with this - with all these millions?
JAFFE: Good question. There has been no public accounting. A letter from a VA official to a member of Congress mentions things like reroofing a building and creating some handicap parking spaces. But really, no one knows what they did with the money in any detail, at least no one outside the VA.
RATH: OK. Well, it says of two questions then. First off, what about Fox Studios and the renters there? What happens to them?
JAFFE: Well, for the time being, nothing. The government said it has plans to appeal, though they haven't yet. In any case, over the last couple of years, some of the renters have moved out. Some of the contracts have been terminated by the VA.
There are two, though, that are in a really tight spot. And that's UCLA, because their baseball stadium is on VA land. And there's an expensive prep school called the Brentwood School, and their athletic complex covers 20 acres of this property. And both schools are hoping that an appeals court lets them challenge the ruling that says these deals are illegal.
RATH: So second question, you know, getting back to the original core problem here, do all these developments get these homeless vets closer to being in homes?
JAFFE: Well, directly, the ruling in court doesn't, though attorneys for the veterans would like to negotiate that. But the lawsuit and the coverage of it brought a lot of attention to the issue, and the VA seems to have taken notice. A few months after a story aired, they started renovating one of these buildings they designated for housing for homeless veterans back in 2007. It'll provide homes for more than 60 vets and have support of services right on site.
Also last summer, General Eric Shinseki, the secretary of Veterans Affairs, announced a major initiative to provide additional services for homeless vets on the West Los Angeles campus and also to increase the number of vouchers that L.A.'s homeless veterans can use to rent apartments.
RATH: That was NPR's Ina Jaffe updating her reporting on the West L.A. VA facility.
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